Movie Review: Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
“Saving Mr. Banks” is a movie ruined by flashbacks.
Could it have been saved? I don’t know. I don’t know if the foregrounding story of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) refusing to sign over the copyright of her great character Mary Poppins to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), then finally acquiescing, allowing the 1964 musical to be made (starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke), and to gross ($102 million, $629 million adjusted), and to win (five Academy Awards, including best actress), I don’t know if this story could have been salvaged. But it’s so intercut with the other one, the story of P.L Travers’ childhood in turn-of-the-century Australia—the flashbacks that Explain All—that it has no chance. It’s the cocaine cut with baking powder. It’s the Julia cut with Julie.
“Mr. Banks” was probably a goner anyway. A Walt Disney movie about Walt Disney? Talk about synergy. But at least I found the foregrounded story vaguely interesting. The other one? In Australia? Kill me now.
He’s a drinker, see?
For a while, Walt Disney’s name goes unmentioned. It’s just he. It’s just assumed. I’d say it’s like the unutterable name of God but it’s more like the unnecessary name of God. It is he who rules beneficently over all.
The she is often assumed, too. Maybe they should have gone on assuming. Because once they start using definite names, chaos ensues. Walt Disney insists on being called “Walt” but Mrs. Travers insists on calling him “Mr. Disney.” She wants “Mrs. Travers” but Walt calls her Pamela, or worse, Pam. The chauffer (Paul Giamatti) calls her “Mrs.” while she doesn’t even know his name until the third act. It’s all very British vs. American, uptight vs. loosey-goosey, and should’ve been funnier than it is.
It’s not even until the third act that Walt discovers P.L. Travers’ real name isn’t Travers; it’s Goff. “Travers” was her father’s name. This is news to him but not to us—we’ve been getting the Goff story from the beginning—but it raises questions. You’d think with all of Disney’s money and power he would’ve been able to figure this out. Like 20 years before. But I guess we all need a third-act reveal. Even when it’s not very revealing.
How many flashbacks to Australia circa 1906-07 do we get in this movie? They just keep coming. And in chronological order, too. So nice when memory works that way.
At first they’re idyllic. A young girl (Annie Rose Buckley), her handsome father (Colin Farrell), the great, lazy outdoors (dry grass next to babbling brooks). Then they move, from Maryborough, Australia to the end of the line: Allora. He has a job as a bank manager. But, uh oh, the bottle appears. He’s a charmer, yes, but a drinker, see. We get several examples of his humiliation, and hers. The girl, Ginty, actually aids and abets, and he winds up in bed, coughing blood. From drinking? No, influenza. So why are we focusing on the drinking? For the shame of it, I guess. For the dull storyline of it.
Ah, but a magical figure appears: a strict nanny who will save all (Rachel Griffiths). Except she doesn’t. The father dies as the girl, Ginty, brings him pears. That’s why, see, Mrs. Travers hates pears. That’s why Mary Poppins. Mrs. Travers didn’t create her to save the children; she did it to save the father. Her father.
She’s a curmudgeon, see?
Anyway, all of these godawful flashbacks help explain why, in the present day, 1961, P.L. Travers is so persnickety, so adamant, so ready to sabotage an absolutely lovely musical that just wants to make everyone ever so heppy. It’s all about her and her effed-up past, when the real dilemma is what he does with British children’s classics. The fluff they become.
We get a flash of this. In her hotel suite in LA, she finds great heaps of stuffed animals based on Disney characters, along with fruit baskets that contain—no!—pears, which she promptly tosses several stories down into the hotel pool. Then she picks up a big stuffed version of Winnie the Pooh and sighs. “Poor A.A. Milne.” She should have kept going. Peter Pan. “Poor J.M. Barrie.” Then her own creation: “Poor me.”
At this point, she’s allowed Disney only an option on the property, so she has the right of first refusal. And second. And third. She takes them all. She doesn’t want a cartoon. She doesn’t want animation of any sort. She doesn’t want the color red in the movie. “Mary Poppins is not for sale!” she tells him. “I won't have her turned into one of your silly cartoons.” Hanks plays Disney as oblivious. How could anyone not like what I do? What I’ve made? It’s the happiest place on Earth! She’s the grumpiest person on Earth in the Happiest Place on Earth. There should’ve been more humor to mine from this as well.
Instead, we veer wildly. Travers goes from totally uncompromising to totally compromised (by “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” of all songs) to storming back to England when she discovers there will be animated penguins, forcing Uncle Walt to actually do research on her, and figure out about her father, and fly to England to not only save the day but commiserate. He tells her his own sad tale—of the harsh winters of turn-of-the century Kansas City, Mo., and of his father’s belt—which is why he does what he does. See? They’re doing the same thing. It’s papering over the pain. It’s making the story come out right. It’s the Disney version. Then he holds onto her hands: Let him make the Disney version of her story, so that, together, they can save Mr. Banks.
Which is what happens.
Interestingly, in the epilogue, at the world premiere of “Mary Poppins,” Uncle Walt is a bit distant from P.L. He doesn’t even invite her to the premiere. (Apparently true.) But she shows, and she cries, and she approves. (Apparently untrue.) For her father is saved onscreen for all time. Because that’s what movies do. They give us the pretty little lies we all crave.
Except P.L. Travers didn’t crave it. She hated it. She hated the Disney version.
Consider “Saving Mr. Banks” the ultimate revenge of Disney Corp. P.L. Travers was a pain in the ass, refusing, for a time, to allow Mary Poppins to be turned into one of Disney’s silly creations. So they waited. And waited. And waited. And then they did the same to her.